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Pirates-Reds Memorial Day Pregame: Bucs have faced toughest pitching in N.L. Central

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The Pirates offense has certainly underperformed, but it is partly because the team has faced the division's toughest pitching.

There's not too much talk of "strength of schedule" in Major League Baseball. That's more of a college football idea. After all, each MLB team plays 162 games, against every other team in their respective league, so much of the schedule strength evens out by September.

However, the Pirates faced the Cubs for the first time this weekend, and will not meet the Brewers for 2012 until this coming weekend. In the first two months, the Bucs have faced the best starting pitching in the National League Central. Their 2012 opponents have averaged a 3.55 earned run average (since the beginning of last year). That is significantly better than the opponents for the Central-leading Cincinnati Reds, who have faced starters averaging a 3.81 ERA, which is about the norm for NL starting pitching in 2012.
And yes, these ERA-against numbers have removed the games played versus the respective team. Translation: the Pirates number is not lower because their offense has been the worst in baseball. The numbers for games the Pirates have played in are removed from the formula for other teams’ ERA.
Correct through May 27, 2012.
This is not to excuse the poor performance of the Pittsburgh offense this season. Take a look at the chart: 2012 Pirates' opponents have averaged a 3.55 ERA, and yet the Bucs have posted only about 2.9 earned runs per game against those pitchers. Meanwhile, the Brewers are hitting about as expected against pitchers averaging a 3.98 ERA, and the Cardinals' offense has made the rest of the division look like Minor Leaguers.
If the Pirates faced league-average starting pitching day in and day out, like the Cincinnati Reds have, they would likely have about 10 more runs this season, or around 0.2 more runs per game. This is because the Bucs have scored about 21 percent fewer runs than expected, based on the pitchers they have faced. If that "minus-21-percent" output came against NL-average starting pitching, they would have more runs than they do now.
So what's the big deal, one might ask? Those runs would likely only be worth one extra win. But that would put the Pirates at .500 or better (the team comes into Monday at 23-24).
What's important is that fans should expect better performance from the Pirates' offense moving forward. They likely won't continue to face what is possibly the best starting pitching in the National League, more hits will drop in (the Pirates have an NL-worst 26.8 percent of balls in play dropping for hits, a stat that is largely based on luck), and perhaps hitters like Clint Barmes and Casey McGehee that are having career-worst seasons will see their numbers normalize a bit. In any case, the Pirates offense will almost certainly improve, as it has little else to fall to.
Today's Starter: James McDonald
Few National League pitchers have been better in the last 30 days than Pirates' starter James McDonald. In the last month, the 27-year-old righty has an NL-best 1.61 FIP (it stands for Fielding Independent Pitching. Think ERA, but only with things the pitcher can control) and the most strikeouts of any NL pitcher outside of pitching-dominant Washington, D.C.
But Monday afternoon, McDonald faces a Reds lineup that faces two of the best left-handed hitters in the game: Jay Bruce and Joey Votto. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is not concerned.
"This is not the James McDonald they saw last year," Hurdle said. "They're two very good hitters. Votto is as good a hitter as there is in the league... James will [face] the same sequence of events he's had to go through with the other left-handed hitters he has faced."
The keys, laid out by Hurdle, will be (1) fastball command, (2) ability to throw secondary pitches when behind in counts and (3) to be aggressive in the zone. If McDonald has a quality start, the Pirates could improve to .500 for the first time this season since the team was 2-2 on April 10.
Tabata To Lead Off After Leaving Early Sunday
It took a little longer than usual to post the Pirates lineup, but that's because trainers were evaluating outfielder Jose Tabata. He was examined on the bases in the 1st inning of Sunday's game, and exited a few innings later with left leg cramping. Everything must have checked out, though, as Tabata is in the leadoff spot for the Bucs today.
Tabata will look to improve his numbers that included a career-low .225 batting average and .619 OPS (on-base plus slugging).
Welcome Doug Slaten
Pirates reliever Juan Cruz was placed on the restricted list Monday morning to attend to personal business in his home country of the Dominican Republic. He is expected to return by the weekend.
In the meantime, veteran left-handed reliever Doug Slaten, 32, was joined the team from Triple-A Indianapolis to take Cruz's bullpen spot. Slaten previously had extended stints with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals, and was wildly successful in Indianapolis. He has thrown 24 straight innings without allowing an earned run.
"I made a little bit of a mechanical adjustment [of how I start my hands], and that's helped out," Slaten said. "But I'd say just getting in the flow of things and getting the season started."
Hurdle said having two lefties in the bullpen (Slaten and Tony Watson) could be an advantage for the Pirates this series, with power lefties Votto and Bruce in the lineup for the Reds. He also mentioned any of Watson, Brad Lincoln, Jared Hughes or Jason Grilli could assume Cruz's late-inning spots this week.
Slaten will wear jersey No. 43 for the Pirates. It is a white jersey today, as the Bucs will not be wearing the camouflage jersey in which they won the last two games. They will retain, however, the camouflage "P" hats for Memorial Day.
Starting Lineups
Cincinnati Reds (27-20, 1st place in NL Central)
CF Drew Stubbs
SS Wilson Valdez
1B Joey Votto
2B Brandon Phillips
RF Jay Bruce
LF Chris Heisey
3B Miguel Cairo
C Ryan Hanigan
RHP Bronson Arroyo (2-2, 3.22 ERA)
Pittsburgh Pirates (23-24, 3rd place in NL Central)
LF Jose Tabata
2B Neil Walker
CF Andrew McCutchen
3B Pedro Alvarez
RF Garrett Jones
1B Matt Hague
C Rod Barajas
SS Clint Barmes
RHP James McDonald (3-2, 2.51 ERA)
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